“Mama, when’s your next hair appointment?” I asked. We were in the car when I brought it up, coming home from my piano lessons, the last of a class-packed schedule on a Saturday night. The air twisted tightly following my mother’s long, gruelling lecture— my hands, my feet, and how they played the piano’s black and white keys and rusty gold pedals had long faded to a lingering silence. Red illuminates the car, the seats, and everything around me. Mama was watching me, waiting for my face to flip to green as if I were a better stoplight than anything on the street.
“Next Thursday, why? You want to come?” She asked.
“I wanted to try getting my hair done at a salon.” I pulled my cheeks up and prayed she would give in just this once.
“Cheaper to do at home.”
“Well, we’re going to that dinner thing Baba was talking about, anyway.” I tried, “Why not get my hair done before then? You know, try something new.” We both knew I couldn’t care less about that family reunion, dinner party, or whatever it was. It was too awkward, going through my slim library of Chinese vocabulary to scrap together a reply to an aunt, uncle, or some random woman who knew me from birth.
“Okay, you show me the style, I cut for you.” She said in her absolute tone, and I couldn’t help myself.
“Why can’t we go to a salon? I want to get my hair done like Leina’s. Or Anya’s. Did you know Anya dyed her hair dark brown? Maybe I could go blonde.” My thoughts were scrambled, and I was pushing dangerously close to Mama’s limit.
Mama pursed her lips, her eyes skimming about my hair, still black under the red light. I shook my head as if to flaunt the thin strands and heard them hit the puff of my vest.
“Anya’s hair was already light, so it’s easy to dye it dark. Your hair, you know how beautiful it is? I go to the salon to dye it dark. Why do you want to make it lighter?”
“Blonde looked fine on Anya, why not me?”
“Why do you want to be like Anya? Everyone always says how clean your hair looks, how easy it
must be to manage, how smooth it looks.” Snip.
“I’ll go ask the hairdresser, then. When we get there.”
“If I should do something with my hair.”
Stubbornness is a curse that passed down from mother to daughter in our little home, and she
knew when it took over my heart and mind and locked me there. A language with no barriers for an American girl and her Chinese speaking mother. Mama knows first hand and is insistent I learn the same way. My face flashed a bright green as the cars before us started to live again, but my mom had long stopped watching me for the light anyway.
“He will just tell you about his fifty dollar hair treatment, and you don’t need that either.” She said, and silence draped over our ears once more.
She’s not mad anymore, at least. Not at my stalemate with musical improvement, not at the fact I want to turn the beautiful black mane she’s maintained for me into the straw I let grow outside our house. I watch her intensity now, directed to the hairstylist and how he cuts her hair into the reddish brown bob she wants it to look like.
“Can you cut more at the bottom?” She asks so often that I file each phrase away into my thin folder of Chinese grammar, feeling the library populate slightly, beneath my nails and beneath the soulless black of my hair. I’d like to think my language is enough to move to Mama’s hometown and become a hairdresser.
Red ribbons decorate blank pink walls, counters littered with magazines advertising nothing but perms and reddish brown hair. Bobs, bangs, curls. Lucky cats and bamboo plants occupy the corners of this little shop. Music in a language I know but not really. Never in my entire life have I gone to a salon, but why did it have to be this? Why couldn’t I just go to a Great Clips store?
She has faith in this place, even though the red square knots and their tassels hang dubiously on the wall. The other hair place can never get it right, she used to say in an annoyed tone before she started going to the place we’re at now. I tell her she looks great regardless of where she goes, because it’s the truth. But I don’t tell her I wouldn’t get the same haircut for myself, because no matter the resemblance I bear to my mom, it wouldn’t look right on my head.
“My daughter wants to do something special with her hair. Seeing family in a few days.” I hear her telling someone’s grandma with bright pink curlers in her short grey hair, who looks at me and frowns. Mama has her hair slathered in a white foam, the short strands shaped into an array of spikes all over her head.
“Why? She just needs a trim.”
“That’s what I said!” Mama sighs, crow’s feet smiling through her apparent exhaustion. “What am I supposed to do? She insisted on coming today.”
The man snipping away at the base of Mama’s hair steps out from behind her, flipping the shears into a safer grip. I make a mental note to learn how to do the trick before fulfilling my newfound goal to become a hairstylist. He’s wearing a lavish green suit coat and deep blue suave pants, somewhat unfitting for a place where hair clips will wedge their way into the cloth. His eyes are like mine, and his hair is shorter than Mama’s.
“Ruru, come here.” My mom says in Mandarin, and I push past wooden tooth combs and salon chairs to the corner she’s at. “I usually just give her a flat trim and no layers. Looks the cleanest.”
“I think that’s perfectly fine for her hair. Very smooth and simple.” He agrees, and I chew on my cheek. “How come she wants something different?”
“Blonde.” I say, and by the way his eyebrows raise, I think I might’ve misunderstood his Mandarin. “Just bleach, right? Everyone tells me you start there. I’ll take good care of it.”
The price to keep such a promise is out of my reach.
Mama’s spikes begin to wilt, but they look sharper than ever. Even the hairdresser, who knows
the cost of the treatment for my deprived hair when the bleach washes out will cost more than a simple haircut, appears as if he’s grieving.
My legs feel numb by the time my scalp stops tingling with bleach, and someone repeatedly dunks my head into a sink until I’m dizzy. I can’t imagine Mama coming here every few months and going through this, but I also can’t process my own thoughts as cold creams and conditioners are kneaded into my brain. Then a fancy blow dryer begins to yell noisily and blond strands fly into my face—
Well. I can’t say I hate it, but it’s definitely something that would take time getting used to. A long time. The hairstylist sets down the blow dryer and carries over a handful of bottles once he decides I’ve been shocked for long enough.
“Now you need to maintain it. This shampoo so your hair doesn’t turn orange…” He begins, pulling loose strands to frame my face as he runs through a hair routine. “See how much harder it is to take care of? But there’s a special treatment I have for you…”
“I think it’s refreshing.” I answer, running my hands through the frizzy gold thread. My hair smells like chlorine and chemicals and American. “Thank you.” I add in Mandarin.
Mama is already waiting, with her spikes brushed back into its usual bob and what can only be described as shocked amusement. My grin is sheepish in our exchange, silly and sweet like our hair.
“Ruyi is so expensive, so persistent. Who knew you’d actually do it!” She says as she hands her card to the hairdresser. Though credit is invisible, I feel strings snap for every strand of hair dipped in bleach.
“Why didn’t you stop me?” I ask, diverting my eyes from the card swipe.
Outside, the sun hits my head. I feel lighter yet heavier all the same. Gold is heavy and I purchased it without understanding its valuable burden.
“Ruyi,” She hums, and I dread the lecture that comes after it. “常常如意。” (T/N: Always so wishful).
The sky is quiet, buzzing with its highway of silent wishes. Outside, messengers run door to door to deliver them, but they just keep flowing in. A knock sounds on the windshield when I slide into the passenger seat— a box of empty gifts, blonde hair.
“Why not be comfortable as you are? I want to give you a better chance here, a better life but you want to blend in. You know, in China, you might blend in okay. Until you speak, at least.”
“We’re in America, Mama. I’m American, but it doesn’t really feel like it.”
I carry the grocery bag when we pull up into the driveway. Inside are glass containers of noodles and chicken feet and bitter vegetables— none of which we were told to bring, but we know Mama’s stir fry is what everyone looks for first when we sit down to eat.
After trekking past a labyrinth of shoes that litter the front porch, Baba and I go to the kitchen, where I set down our brown bags of tupperware and he materializes two bottles of red wine from thin air. I don’t question it and shuffle away in my bare socks to the living room, where my cousins are playing a game on the family computer.
It’s awkward. The quiet before the storm— before the adults start pestering about grades and piano recitals, math competitions and boyfriends. Long before they take out seven decks of cards and sunflower seeds. White noise is everyone’s appetizer save for the distant sneeze of an uncle and the ring of laughter from another, all heard from a mile away.
“You forgot this, again.” A voice appears out of nowhere, and after, the slap of slippers on the wood floor. The oldest of my younger cousins was, and still is brilliant at sneaking up behind me. It’s routine at this point, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Mimi! You’ve grown so tall, I’d think you were my older sister.” I exclaim, patting the top of her head. At thirteen, Mimi is nearly as tall as me, with long hair that reaches towards the floor while she parades about proudly. Being a short two years younger and just as lonely of an only child as I am, it was hard to tell one apart from the other. Then, one of the twins went on a road trip to the hair salon.
“I wish you were my older sister, Ruru.” She says, pushing up to her toes into the palm of my
hand. “It’d be nice having someone to get advice from, you know? Except my hair. You’re not going near my hair with..”
Her grin turns devilish when my hand immediately whips away from her head to tug at the dry blond strands at my scalp. I’d completely forgotten about it, that I tied it all back into a ponytail before coming. Turns out purple shampoo doesn’t do anything to prevent my hair from turning greasy and brittle at the same time. My hair is orange in the name of neglect. It took ages to accept my hair as it was, and it will take longer to regrow.
“Hey, what’s wrong with it?” I say with a scowl and a scoff. “You’re just jealous that I look great as a blonde.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever you say, Ru. Let’s go ask around then.” Mimi grabs my shoulder and starts pulling us towards the kitchen, and I nearly trip over the slippers she brought me just moments earlier. My heels burn and my toes are frozen cold.
“They’re probably setting up the food and everything, we probably shouldn’t bother them..”
“Then just go help out.” She says, not unlike my would-be older sister. “I’ll take the blame if someone ends up finding orange, I mean, blonde hair in your mom’s stir fry.”
“You’re never going to let me live this down, are you? It’s blonde!”
“Nope, never, Meimei.” She teases and escapes into the kitchen. Her voice is on par with her steps, rising in pitch and sharpening in tone until she’s speaking flawless Mandarin. The duality of all— she is synonymous with pure gold, the daughter every mother wishes they had. Because what Chinese girl can’t speak her mother tongue?
I shuffle mindlessly about the kitchen because Mimi is nowhere to be found once again. Instead, I find her mother trying to manage a giant steel pot of soup half her size while oil leaps like the sun’s coronal loops in the pan next to it. Chopsticks are scattered out dangerously close to the flame, every individual waiting to be united with another of its own design. It shouldn’t be that hard to offer my help? Eight characters and an elementary collection of tones shouldn’t be hard to do. It wouldn’t be, if I were
Mimi, my older sister, two years younger than myself.
One breath in, one breath out, and I speak.
“Huh?” Mimi’s mother asks, shouting over the sound of frying oil. I try to repeat myself, but now
it won’t be impressive, I think. I might mess up my accent this time, maybe. I might sound too American, most likely.
But isn’t that what you’ve been trying to do this whole week?
“Can I help you set the table, 阿姨?” I say, and every letter of the English language is armed with a needle that presses into my tongue, and she hands me the bundle of chopsticks with a wordless nod.
“Such a good child.” I hear her mutter to my mom as I’m counting twenty or so pairs.
For an American girl.
I restart my counting from zero, pairing two together, one for each cousin, auntie, uncle, Mama
and Baba— a mindless task that I repeat until it’s time to eat. Mindless, until I’m left with two lone chopsticks, each without its other half. The first, a lovely cream with gold characters and a black handle. The second, dull white with an amber coat at the handle; the corner is chipped away from overuse, revealing dark, dark, inky wood.
It’s quiet when we crowd about the long table and drag our folding chairs to fit everyone. The house returns to its silence when my cousins run off to play board games in Mimi’s room, who leaves me to attempt learning the nameless card game that all the adults somehow know how to play. By the end of the night, my teeth are numb and grey from the countless ways I’ve found to crack open sunflower seeds, but I still don’t learn how to play the card game before Mimi drags me upstairs because none of the little cousins have ever seen straw for hair except on the scarecrows in the schoolyard.
When we finally come home, I’m carrying a brown bag with glass tupperware of leftovers, homemade pastries, and the soup I watched Mimi’s mother cook in a giant pot. Unbeknownst to my mom, Mimi, or any of my cousins, a tiny pile of blonde hair sits in Mimi’s bathroom sink, where strands of hair
split to two.